Highly organised theft of oil cargoes in the Gulf of Guinea has become “a near perfect crime, ” underwriters heard at the annual conference of the International Union of Marine Insurance.
Jim Mainstone, a marine intelligence specialist at security and crisis management consultancy Gray Page, warned that the circumstances were quite different to pirate assaults on ships in the Gulf of Aden and off east Africa. “Forget about Somalia; analyse West Africa from first principles, ” he advised the audience at the London conference.
Mr Mainstone, who spent 18 years as a military intelligence officer before becoming involved in the shipping sector in 2008, admitted: “As an intelligence puzzle, West African piracy is a tough one to crack, certainly compared to Somalia.”
It should not be considered just as piracy – “organised crime is a better way of defining it.”
He went on: “It is a near perfect crime. It is quick, it raises a lot of money, no one really gets hurt and no one is going to do, or is doing, very much about it. There is only one set of winners which is the criminal gangs, and there is only one real loser and that is you, the cargo interests.”
He said that the gangs operating in West Africa had key connections. They could steal a 7, 000 tonnes cargo, lighter it illegally outside territorial waters, store it somewhere, move it into the black market to reap millions of dollars, organise the finance and pay off the officials if required – “it is quite sophisticated.”
He declared: “The pirates who board the vessel are the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg is a massive organised crime in the region.”
The criminality was embedded in corruption – there were local ‘actors’ passing on to the crooks precise details of vessels. The corrupt individuals included surveyors and people in fendering companies.
Robberies were rife off Lomé, Cotonou and Lagos. Despite what local authorities said, vessels were not necessarily safe in an anchorage. Recent incidents indicated that newer people were getting into the game “because it is a great crime for them.”
Advice relevant to Somalia, such as the BMP4 code (the fourth version of the shipping industry’s Best Management Practices for Protection against Somali-based Piracy) did not really help shipowners protect their vessels off West Africa, although relying on such interim guidelines might provide the owner with some ‘sanctuary’ in the event of a charter party dispute following a hijack.
Mr Mainstone indicated that ship operators and their underwriters should beware of insensitive and blundering ‘solutions.’ He said that he had heard one maritime security company recommend a shipowner operating in the Gulf of Guinea put razor wire round his ship and arm the crew with petrol bombs – “that is crazy, ” he said.